March 15, 2007 at 8:29 a.m.
Johnson is a Lindstrom resident and Chisago Lakes High School graduate who was one of five people living and working in the monastery of Sant Anselmo, Rome, chosen to serve as acolytes during Ash Wednesday services at the Vatican.
Johnson is currently a volunteer at the monastery through the St. John's Benedictine Volunteer Corps.
He works as a librarian in the monastic library, compiles computer databases in the Rector's office and assists with maintaining the grounds. He also said he is on a "dish crew" in the kitchen on a rotating basis and helps with Mass at the monastery.
"Living at the monastery has been incredibly rewarding and I have loved getting to know the monks I currently live with, who hail from 45 countries," Johnson said. He attends daily prayer with the monks as well.
While volunteering, he was asked to be part of the Papal Mass. The Processional journey is from Sant Anselmo to Santa Sabina, a nearby church. Both the monastery and the church are annually responsible for organizing the Papal Mass.
Johnson was asked to participate as one of the five acolytes from Sant Anselmo. "I readily agreed," he said.
A training session with the Vatican's Master of Ceremonies then followed. He was randomly assigned the job of pastorale, or the person to hold the Papal staff during Mass.
He felt jittery the day before, but as the Ash Wednesday ceremony approached, Johnson just went into "job mode" and performed his duties, he said.
"I didn't have time to reflect much until afterwards," he said. "I'm just glad I didn't make any big mistakes, especially since all of the instruction was in Italian. I also knew that the Mass was being broadcast across the world and my whole family was watching back home."
One thing he will never forget was actually meeting the Pope.
"I met eyes with the Pope as I was going up to receive the ashes," he said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that moment. It was just kind of like everything was silent and slow for a brief second."
He enjoyed seeing how emotional people were when they received ashes from the Pope and said even some of the Cardinals were moved by the experience. Later, Johnson was introduced to the Pope, who asked why he was in Rome and where he was from.
"I got to shake his hand and kiss his Papal ring," Johnson said. "I told him I was at Sant Anselmo volunteering and that I was from Minnesota." All the Mass volunteers then received rosaries from the Pope as a thank-you.
Johnson graduated from St. John's and will return to the U.S. at the end of April to start law school at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
He wouldn't trade his volunteer experience in Rome for anything.
"Overall, I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to live in Rome with a fantastic group of incredibly diverse people and to serve Mass with the Pope," he said.
"I know that both of these experiences will continue to have a profound effect on me for the rest of my life. I am thankful to both the St. John's Benedictine Volunteer Corp and Sant Aneslmo for making these things possible."